A Song I Knew by Heart
For those who love beautiful writing and a quiet read, Bret Lott's A SONG I KNEW BY HEART, a tender contemporary retelling of the biblical Ruth and Naomi story, is a competent exploration of grief and healing.
Lott's narrative opens as Ruth loses her husband in a terrible accident. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, a widow whose husband died eight years before, is plunged into renewed grief (the song she knows by heart). Throughout the book, Lott uses the image of light and darkness to illustrate deeper meanings. As the two inconsolable widows wait for morning together, "Shadows outside eased and shifted, made way for new shadows, all of this movement only the empty fruit of that faithless sun." Later, as Ruth and Naomi try to do ordinary things, such as see a movie, they find it devastating, "like sitting in the dark and watching a life played out just beyond your reach, that life your own."
Seeking healing from her pain, Naomi declares her intention to go back home to South Carolina, "called by the force of whatever mystery the place I'd once called home and would call home again held out to me." As readers of scripture will quickly guess, Ruth vows to go with her. After a yard sale where the women divest themselves of almost everything, they journey back to Naomi's childhood region.
Other themes unfold. Naomi grieves over a secret from her past for which she is unable to forgive someone --- and herself. She finds the area she was nostalgic for from her childhood is not as she recalled it. Now, there are satellite dishes, video stores, tattoo parlors, sushi bars, Taco Bells. "Time moved, whether you liked it or not." Naomi also realizes she is not the same person she once was in this place. She has run, but "I hadn't run from me. I'd only run from our home, and from the death of our son, and from God for having taken from me the last evidence of the love Eli and I shared," reflects Naomi.
Things have changed. Yet, "It's still beautiful here," Ruth tells her. "The light is just like you said it would be." It is the light --- and descriptions of the light --- that serve as a reminder by Lott that God can pierce the darkness of grief by his love and grace. "Still He was with me," says Naomi.
Readers will enjoy how Lott adapts the Old Testament story to a contemporary setting. Ruth gets a job as a checker at the Piggly Wiggly grocery store, then finds a better one as a shift supervisor at a Harris Teeter. Naomi finds some peace in returning to her family, full of interesting characters, and Ruth finds a welcome as well. A quilt serves as a symbol of the relationships left behind, and the possibilities for mending their lives. When Ruth falls in love with a fireman, the quilt becomes the proverbial blessing/covering passed on by Naomi for their new relationship.
Although readers have criticized Lott for choosing style over plot substance in A SONG I KNEW BY HEART, the joy of this book is exactly that --- in how Lott can take a familiar subject (both the biblical account and the loss of a loved one) and make it sing. Of his early Oprah-pick novel, JEWEL, the Boston Globe noted, "Bret Lott has a gift for making the ordinary seem luminous." This gift is in full evidence here, as Lott illuminates the ordinary landscape of grief and reminds us that light always overcomes the darkness.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on May 31, 2005